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`PROGRESS’ SUFFOCATES OLD UNION

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Around 7200 South and 1000 East you run into streets and businesses that use the word "Union." There's the Union Park Avenue exit off I-215, the Union Park Center and Fort Union Boulevard.

I had known about Fort Douglas but never gave much thought to Fort Union.Then last week I sat down with a few people from the area and realized that Fort Union has nothing to do with the military, but with the old town of Union, where in 1853 settlers built a fort for protection from possible Indian hostilities and called it, not Fort Union, but Union Fort.

Though the fort encompassed 10 acres, the town soon expanded beyond its walls. By the turn of the century, it had a schoolhouse, post office and store. There was an amusement and dance hall, a livery stable and, in the early 1900s, a market and service station.

By then, there was little left to mark the original fort, but the layout of the town's streets and irrigation canals marked it as a vital, living community. My dad, who grew up in Draper and went to Jordan High School in the 1930s, often talked about "the kids from Union," like the kids from Riverton and Midvale.

I guess the reason I make such a point of all this is because Union, over the past several years, has slowly become a community crowded into oblivion by the expansion of suburbs and suffocated under a guise of progress.

Not that progress is a bad thing. I detected, for example, no note of remorse in the people I talked to about the growth that has occurred over the years. It's just that the final act, about to be played out through a "redevelopment" decision to be made by the current Salt Lake County Commission (Union has never incorporated), threatens to wipe out all that remains of the old community and its history.

Oh, there will be a plaque on a wall somewhere, and a token park in the middle of the massive parking lot of the expanded strip mall that is planned to blanket Union's old heart with a film of asphalt. But bronze plaques do not breathe, nor give rising generations any sense of the heritage that has gone on before them.

Michael Leventhal, director of the Utah Heritage Foundation, put it well when he said, "Just because your grandmother is the last surviving daughter and has been described by someone as the ugliest, do you get rid of her?"

The more time I spent in Union, the more I was convinced of her hidden beauty. It was not found with a casual drive-through, but only on detailed examination of the supposed corpse.

The old Jehu Cox home, for example, despite its boarded-up windows, stands firm and resolute on the edge of a thick grove of trees. This is not any old building. Built between 1847 and 1849, it is the oldest surviving two-story adobe home in the state of Utah. Under the proposal in controversy, however, it would be demolished on site. But structurally sound, and wonderfully unique in both exterior and interior, it would make a marvelous museum. Against its northern foundation, remnants of the original fort wall still exist, recently identified and documented by archaeologists as a major find.

Historian Steven K. Madsen has said, "This is a gold mine! Utahns everywhere should be thrilled to see for themselves the actual foundations of a fort wall dating back to the Walker Indian War. Not preserving it would be disastrous."

Throughout the neighborhood, fragments of pioneer flora tempt the visitor to envision a walking botanical park where plaques could serve real purpose by describing the reality of old traditional landscape forms such as day lilies, wild sweet peas, chokecherries, blackberries, mints and herbs, catalpa and cedar, trumpet vines and trees-of-heaven, all abundant in the yards of the several historic homes that still stand. Along one edge of the old fort wall, an ancient pear tree - planted inside the fort at the time of its existence - still bears fruit.

There should be a plaque at the foot of that tree, and schoolchildren on field trips should be able to taste those pears. That's where the real links with our heritage are forged.

They are forged in the words on a plaque that would describe why the huge Carolina poplar - close by the pear tree and so massive in girth that it takes four adults holding hands to encircle it - leans to one side. In short, it leans so dizzily because when it was only a sprout by the edge of a hitching rail, a horse stepped on it, mashing it to the side. But it survived, and grew into this monolith with roots so immense that they raise the foundation of the old log house (disguised by pale green siding) that snuggles against it. But despite its determination as a seedling, it may not survive the developer's unconcerned swath.

The tragedy is that there are alternative plans that would preserve major portions of this heritage. But politics may render such options moot.

Heritage is the name of the moistness from the old Cahoon ditch and the East Jordan Canal, where pioneer dipping rights are still intact. You look at the water glistening on your fingers and palms and realize this is pioneer water, still steered in its first carved beds.

As he recalled the past several years of futile attempts at preservation, I detected a tone of resolution in one old-time resident, whose great-great-grandfather was one of the original settlers.

"It's no use," he said, "it'll go. You can't fight city hall."

There was cynicism, but under it, more a sense of pain in the way his voice broke as he spoke, pain we ought, all of us, to feel whenever the foundations of our heritage are threatened without thought - like the remnants of Union, a community currently being suffocated by our material and rootless restlessness to move blindly forward without any thought of taking with us the proper credentials of our past.